By Ramzy Baroud
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must be channeling the spirit of Harry Houdini as he continues to plot his escape from one of the most convoluted political dramas in Israel’s history. It is no secret that Netanyahu’s political behavior is almost entirely shaped by his desire to survive in office for as long as possible in order to avoid possible jail time. But how long will the Israeli escape artist manage to survive now that a date for his trial has been set?
After months of bargaining with the country’s political elite on the one hand, while pleading with his own right-wing constituency on the other, Netanyahu has failed to create the necessary momentum that would render him immune from prosecution and secure his position at the helm of Israeli politics.
After failing to form a government following last April’s elections, Netanyahu masterfully linked his fate as prime minister to all of Israel’s affairs, internal and external. Still, there is little evidence that Netanyahu’s diplomatic and financial conquests have yielded the intended result of augmenting his support among ordinary Israelis, especially as Benny Gantz, who heads the Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) alliance, has continued to venture further to the right, slowly undermining Netanyahu’s support in every facet of Israeli society. The September election demonstrated Gantz’s ability to overcome Netanyahu’s various political advantages in the eyes of the Israeli voters.
Israelis are scheduled to return to the voting booths on March 2 for the country’s third general election in less than a year. Within that short period of time, Gantz has managed to repeatedly alter his persona to behave like a right-wing politician, while still presenting himself as a centrist who is willing to engage with the left in order to build a future government coalition.
Knowing that the noose has tightened around his neck since the first elections in April, Netanyahu resorted to having Washington release its so-called “deal of the century.” Indeed, Donald Trump’s plan was revealed ahead of schedule to provide the despairing Israeli leader a final lifeline that would, Netanyahu hoped, deliver a decisive blow and help him win his multiple battles. Alas, things did not work out as he planned.
The story was meant to proceed like this: The Trump administration would reveal the plan that would give Israel everything and the Palestinians nothing; Netanyahu would then, naturally, take full credit for his greatest achievement in office and would follow that by annexing all illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, in addition to the entire Jordan Valley.
This, however, did not happen. On Feb. 4, Netanyahu reversed his earlier decision to annex much of the West Bank before the March 2 vote. Instead, he told a campaign rally that the annexation was conditioned on his electoral victory. While many in the media parroted, without evidence, that the postponement of the annexation was the direct result of a request made by Washington, the real reason is likely related to Netanyahu’s own political woes at home.
Netanyahu must be aware that Trump’s plan and the annexation of the West Bank are his last hope if he wants to secure a comfortable election victory, be granted immunity, and avoid serving jail time for corruption. But what if Netanyahu annexed parts of the West Bank and failed to win the elections? In that scenario, the embattled Israeli leader would have no more wiggle room and zero political advantage for a future plea bargain. This explains the sudden halt in Netanyahu’s annexation plan, especially as the prime minister had, at a recent campaign rally, presented annexation in the form of a political barter. “When we win, we will extend sovereignty over all the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu reportedly said, with reference to the annexation of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.
As a consolation prize and to avoid angry reactions by the country’s right-wing constituency — especially the politically well-organized settlers — Netanyahu last week announced that he would revive a long-dormant plan to construct 3,000 new homes for illegal Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem. “Today I approved the construction in Givat Hamatos of 3,000 homes for Jews,” Reuters reported, with 2,000 more expected to be built in the illegal Har Homa settlement. These moves are particularly significant, as such construction would completely isolate the Palestinian city of Bethlehem from East Jerusalem, thus killing any hope of Palestinian territorial contiguity in any future state.
Netanyahu’s adversaries in the opposition, in government and in the Supreme Court are, of course, wary of his shenanigans. While Gantz often responds to Netanyahu’s opportunistic moves — largely by upgrading his own political position to match, or even surpass, his opponent’s position — support for the prime minister in the Knesset is lukewarm at best. In fact, last month, Netanyahu was forced to withdraw his request for immunity, knowing that it would not receive the required support.
Meanwhile, the legal proceedings regarding Netanyahu’s corruption cases continue unabated. According to the Israeli Justice Ministry, Netanyahu will be obligated to attend his trial in the Jerusalem District Court, even in his capacity as prime minister and regardless of what transpires in the elections. A three-judge panel will hear the case, during which Netanyahu will have to divide his time between running Israeli affairs and fending off accusations of his own corruption.
This is uncharted territory for Israel. Never before in the country’s history has the ruling elite been faced with such legal and political dilemmas.
Since Israel continues to operate without a constitution and, because this is the first time that a sitting prime minister will face trial, the Supreme Court is the only authority that is able to interpret the country’s laws in order to advance the legal proceedings. But even that is problematic. Ayelet Shaked, the controversial — and often vulgar — former justice minister has openly warned the country’s Supreme Court justices that any involvement in the political process would be “tantamount to a coup.”
Israelis now find themselves on the cusp of a new era; one that is defined by the breakdown of the country’s legal system, prolonged political crisis, and never-ending social instability.